Sunday, December 30, 2018

Up From Slavery (1901)

Booker T. Washington is an interesting American historical figure all the way around and his memoir is a good place to get the basic points. For the full context, as a conservative business leader in the South, you have to dig a little more, and it's complicated. Washington's personal ethos appeared to genuinely hew close to bedrock conservative American puritanism, certainly in terms of traits like work ethic and thrift. What he accomplished in his lifetime with Tuskegee University remains plain amazing. For crying out loud, he built a kiln to make the bricks to raise the buildings while they farmed the rest of the land. There is something at once inspiring and exhausting about this story. Why did it have to be that hard? Washington is an obvious source for the so-called Jackie Robinson rules as we understand and still live by them now—as an African American you always have to be better and you can never get mad or even complain. Washington was born into slavery and raised in a world where he would never get a break. He had to be grateful for even the smallest concession—a loan, say, which could be easily obtained by most white men—and he had to be silent on racism. He's still mostly silent about it here. He is quick to criticize members of "my race" and slow to condemn whites. So among other things Up From Slavery is a look into the strange ways of the South in the transition period from Reconstruction to Jim Crow. Washington is amazed, on his first visit to the North, that he can stay in a hotel where whites stay. It's poignantly sad in those terms. The facts of the shabby treatment of former slaves are mostly left out, and it seems like a strange absence now. Yet who can fail to be impressed with what Washington did? He built a kiln to make the bricks to raise the buildings for a university campus while he farmed the rest of the land for food. Like the best memoirs his book is a pleasure to read, with rambling anecdotes and lots of insight, some of which seems to me now harsher than necessary. But then he accomplished all that he did. Still, Up From Slavery has strange gaps, not just on racism. I got the feeling we're not getting the whole story on everything with his three marriages, for example. But it's great on Tuskegee, and an affecting landmark of where race relations were in America, 40 years on from Fort Sumter.

In case it's not at the library.

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